There’s been a kind of perfect storm of issues to do with representation in the last couple of months – what with the male-heavy campaigns for Leave and Remain in the EU referendum; the result which called it for Brexit, and the accompanying discussion around distance between political elites and ordinary people; and assessment of the impact of our new, second female Prime Minister. Both major political parties have also been embroiled in leadership contests which have presented different approaches to the question of representation of party membership, and parliamentary representation of the electorate.
Into this maelstrom arrives a new report by Professor Sarah Childs, ‘The Good Parliament’, which addresses how the institution may become more diverse and inclusive. It is an opportune moment to consider representation in Parliament: not only is it the centenary of the Acts which extended voting rights to working-class men and the first women, but the need to refurbish our Parliament buildings presents a rare chance to experiment with physical and procedural infrastructure. These factors, along with the support of the Speaker, who has founded a Commons Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion to carry ideas forward, mean that there is a unique opportunity to potentially transform Parliament into an institution which more closely represents the society it serves. With only 29% of MPs currently female, and only 6% drawn from minority ethnic backgrounds, this is surely overdue; and the long decline in numbers of parliamentarians drawn from working-class backgrounds also needs to be addressed. While the report does not deal with the EU referendum, it seems to me that it has added relevance because of it. In the wake of evidence that the Brexit vote was carried by people living in former industrial heartlands of the UK, and in more deprived communities, working-class representation in politics could hardly be higher on the agenda.
The report looks at how diversity could be strengthened throughout Parliament’s work and practices. This includes measures to improve the family-friendliness of parliament – involving policies around maternity, paternity and parental leave, more flexibility in voting arrangements, and the headline-grabbing recommendation that breastfeeding should be better accommodated. As Jo Swinson has already pointed out, the media focus on breastfeeding, which is a relatively minor recommendation in the report, says a lot about how far we have to go in discussions of diversity, especially as it applies to women in public life.
Childs highlights the importance of better representativeness in Select Committees, the parliamentary bodies which hold government to account. She says that in 2016 it is ‘undesirable’ that some Committees are highly skewed in terms of gender in their membership. This matters, because many of the Committees considered most important or prestigious, e.g. Foreign Affairs, are disproportionately male. Meanwhile, the Women and Equalities Committee initially contained only one man, and now has two male MPs among its members. The report mentions the blog I wrote last year, which remarked that this committee is also novice-heavy and that it would be good to think that ‘women and equalities really matter to the big beasts in politics – most of whom are still middle-aged men’. The Good Parliament recommends that single gender Select Committees are prohibited, and that parties become more ‘mindful of wider representativeness’ in electing committee members. This awareness of representativeness extends to committee witnesses as well – the experts invited to contribute should also be more diverse.
During the referendum debate, Michael Gove made the now notorious comment that we’ve ‘had enough of experts’; there’s been a strong suggestion that this view may have gained traction because ‘experts’ are so often the ‘usual suspects’: white, older men. By looking beyond this group, the valuable work of many female and non-white professionals and academics would be recognised and reflected back to us all.
Representativeness also matters in media – the lens through which we receive information about politics and Parliament. Lobby journalism remains even more male-dominated than other areas, and Childs advocates that Parliament works towards a situation where monitoring ensures that neither men nor women drop below 40% of lobby pass recipients. This move would potentially encourage more diverse reportage, and help insure against any tendency towards ‘groupthink’ in political coverage.
As the dust begins to settle on the turbulent last month in British politics, Childs’ report should be part of the landscape in which we discuss post-referendum Britain. The ministers appointed to the Department for Exiting the European Union (DEEU) and Department for International Trade (DIT) – the new departments central to implementing Brexit – are exclusively male. As we gear up to make the best of post-Brexit Britain we should ensure that diverse voices are heard. There is a Select Committee for every government department – hopefully the ones for DEEU and DIT will not hear exclusively from white men of a certain class.